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from Essays and literary studies,
New York: John Lane Co;
[London]: Allen Lane (1916)
ESSAYS upon American Humour, after an initial effort towards the dignity and severity of literary criticism, generally resolve themselves into the mere narration of American jokes and stories. The fun of these runs thinly towards its impotent conclusion, till the disillusioned reader detects behind the mask of the literary theorist the anxious grin of the second-hand story-teller. It is the aim of the present writer to effect something more than this, and to offer a contribution, however humble, to the theory of æsthetics, and a study of those national characteristics which are associated with the particular domain of the æsthetics in question.
The following essay is therefore intended to present a serious analysis of American humour as an art, and to discuss its relation to the character and history of the people among whom it has originated. In such a discussion it may well become necessary to introduce an actual citation of typical American jokes: but, where this is the case, it is done only in the interests of art, and with a proper sense of responsibility.
This is a somewhat venturesome task, and one for which the limits of the present essay are all too brief. The æsthetic theory of the humorous has been but little exploited, and never satisfactorily explained. It offers an open field for the talents of a future philosopher, or psychologist, who shall confine himself exclusively to the comic, and set up for us by his analysis the long-needed criterion of what is, and what is not, amusing. The philosopher who will do this for the domain of mirth will not only benefit the theory of æsthetics, but may incidentally shed upon his own province a not unpleasing illumination.
It is not to be implied from this that none of the world's great philosophers, such as Kant, and Schopenhauer, have dealt with the analysis of humour. Several of them have done so, and have done so in a spirit which does them credit. Schopenhauer has told us -- I cannot quote his phrase exactly but merely give the rough, everyday sense of his words -- that all those concepts are amusing in which there is the subsumption of a double paradox. This is a proposition which none of us will readily deny, and one which, if more, widely appreciated, might prove of the highest practical utility.
Kant, likewise, has said that in him everything excites laughter in which there is a resolution or deliverance of the absolute captive by the finite. It was very honourable of Kant to admit this. It enables us to know exactly what did, and what did not, excite him. But the difficulty remains that the philosophical school of analysts, in their fear of being thought light, frivolous, or over-intelligible in dealing with this subject have been led to envelop themselves in a thick haze of psychological terminology which the common eye is unable to pierce. The explanation of the humorous proceeds thus ad obscurum per obscurius. The presentation in simple language for simple people of a true theory of the ludicrous has yet to be made.
It is Perhaps not difficult to understand why so few writers have attempted a painstaking and scientific analysis of what is humorous. There appears to be a sort of intellectual in. dignity involved in the serious study of the comic.
Catullus said long ago that "nothing is more foolish than a foolish laugh," and a recent French psychologist has added that "laughter is often an excellent symptom of intellectual poverty." It follows, therefore, that any man of attainment is unwilling that his name should be unduly associated with the seemingly lighter side of intellectual life. He does not deny his own appreciation of the humorous. Indeed, by a strange inconsistency he shows himself highly sensitive in regard to it. Of his other faculties he is willing to admit the limitations. He is willing to make efforts to cultivate them. But his appreciation of humour he regards as a natural endowment, perfect in its degree, and needing no further cultivation. He even affects to consider the professional, or notorious humorist, with a kindly condescension, not unmixed with contempt. "There are obvious reasons," says Oliver Wendell Holmes, "why all reputable authors are ashamed of being funny. The clown knows very well that the women are not in love with him, but with Hamlet, the gloomy fellow yonder in the black coat and the plumed hat. The wit knows that his place is at the tail of the procession."
The initial task, then, of explaining the general nature of humour is difficult enough. But, even if this task were successfully accomplished, there remains the further difficulty of rightly explaining the essential nature of American humour. For this term does not necessarily apply to all humorous writings produced in the United States. The expression is not a geographical one, but ought to indicate certain dominant qualities, modes of thought and expression which mark off a distinctive literary product.
Even from this preliminary survey of the ground before us it can be seen that the subject under discussion is of no mean importance. Still further is its importance enhanced when one realises the peculiar position occupied by American humour in the general body of American literature.
In the preceding essay the discussion turned upon the relatively small output of literature of the highest class upon the continent of America. Wonderful as our civilisation is on its material and practical side, it falls short as yet, in regard to literature and general culture, of the standard of the great nations of Europe. But in this relative literary sterility there has been one salient exception, and this exception has been found in the province of humorous writing. Here at any rate American history, and American life, have continuously reflected themselves in a not unworthy literary product. The humorist has followed, and depicted, the progress of our western civilisation at every step. Benjamin Franklin has shewn us the humour of Yankee commercialism, and Pennsylvanian piety-the odd resultant of the juxtaposition of saintliness and common sense. Irving has developed the humour of early Dutch settlement -- the mynheers of the Hudson valley, with their long pipes and leisurely routine; Hawthorne presents the mingled humour and pathos of Puritanism; Hans Breitmann sings the ballad of the later Teuton; Lowell, the Mexican war, and the Slavery contest; Oliver Wendell Holmes, the softer side of the rigid culture of Boston; Mark Twain and Bret Harte bring with them the new vigour of the West; and, at the close of the tale, the sagacious Mr. Dooley appears as the essayist of the Irish immigrant, while a brilliant group of "up-to-date" writers -- the Ades, the Adamses and the Irwins of our contemporary journalism -- boldly challenge comparison with their predecessors. No very lofty literature is this perhaps, yet faithful and real of its kind, more truly and distinctively American than anything else produced upon the continent.
All of this has been said but as a somewhat overbalanced introduction. Let me now invite my readers to take with me a sudden plunge into the uttermost psychology of the subject, comparable, I fear, in its recklessness with that taken of old time down a steep place into the sea.
The basis of the humorous, the amusing, -- the ludicrous, lies in the incongruity, the unfittingness, the want of harmony among things; and this incongruity, according to the various stages of evolution of human society and of the art of speech, may appear in primitive form, or may assume a more complex manifestation. The crudest and most primitive form of all "disharmonies" is that offered by the aspect of something smashed, broken, defeated, knocked out of its original shape and purpose. Hence it is that Hobbes tells us that the prototype of human amusement is found in the exulting laugh of the savage over his fallen foe whose head he has cracked with a dub. This represents the very origin and fountain source of laughter. "The passion of laughter," says Hobbes, "springs from a sudden glory anrising from a conception of some eminence in ourselves, as compared with the misfortunes of others." It seems but a sad commentary upon the history of humanity to think that the original basis of our amusement should appear in the form which is called demoniacal merriment. But there is much to support the view. "The pleasure of the ludicrous," says Plato, "originates in the sight of another's misfortune." Nay, we have but to consider the cruder forms of humour even among civilised people to realise that the original type still persists. The laughter of a street urchin at the sight of a fat gentleman slipping on a banana peel, the amusement of a child in knocking down nine-pins, or demolishing a snow man, the joy of a school boy in breaking window panes -- all such cases indicate the principle of original demoniacal amusement at work.
Even in reputable modern literature we can find innumerable examples of merriment of the lower type created in this fashion. We are all familiar with Bret Harte's poem about the circumstances which terminated the existence of the literary society formed at the mining camp of Stanislow. The verse in which the fun of the poem culminates runs:
Then Abner Dean, of Angels, raised a point of order, when
A chunk of old red sandstone hit him in the abdomen,
And he smiled a kind of sickly smile, and curled up on the floor,
And the subsequent proceedings interested him no more.
Now this humour of discomfiture, of destructiveness and savage triumph may be expected to appear not only among a primitive people, but also in any case where the settlement of a new country reproduces to some extent the circumstances of primitive life. One can therefore readily understand that it enters freely into the composition of the humour of American western life. The humour of the Arkansas mule, of the bucking broncho, of the Kentucky duel, is all of this primitive character. Mark Twain's earlier and shorter sketches contain much material of this sort. An excellent illustration of it is found in the essay called "Journalism in Tennessee." The following extract therefrom, a little abbreviated for the sake of condensation, may be offered in citation:
The Editor of the Johnson County Warwhoop was dictating an article (to Mark Twain, the Associate Editor) on the Encouraging Progress of Moral and Intellectual Development in America, when, in the midst of his work, somebody shot at him through the open window and marred the symmetry of his ear. "Ah," he said, "that is that scoundrel, Smith, of the Moral Volcano; he was due yesterday." He snatched a navy revolver from his belt, and fired. Smith dropped, shot in the thigh. The Editor went on with his dictation. Just as he finished a hand grenade came down the stove pipe, and the explosion shattered the stove into a thousand fragments. However, it did no other damage than to knock out a couple of my teeth. Shortly after, a brick came through the window, and gave me a considerable jolt in the back. The chief said: "That was the colonel, likely." A moment after, the colonel appeared in the doorway with a dragoon revolver in his hand. "I have a little account to settle with you," he said: "if you are at leisure we will begin." Both pistols rang out at the same moment. The chief lost a lock of his hair, and the colonel's bullet ended its career in my thigh. The colonel's left shoulder was chipped a little. They fired again. Both missed their men this time, but I got my share, a shot in the arm. I said I believed I would go out and take a walk as this was a private interview. Both gentlemen begged me to keep my seat.
It will of course be readily seen that the humorous quality of the above is of a mixed character, but the discomfiture of the associate editor enters largely into it.
Now, this primitive form of fun is of a decidedly anti-social character. It runs counter to other instincts, those of affection, pity, unselfishness, upon which the progressive development of the race has largely depended. As a consequence of this, the basis of humour tends in the course of social evolution to alter its original character. It becomes a condition of amusement that no serious harm or injury shall be inflicted, but that only the appearance or simulation of it shall appear. Indeed Plato himself adds, as a proviso' to the definition which I have quoted above, that the misfortune which excites mirth in question must involve no serious harm. Hence it comes about that the sight of a humped back, or a crooked foot, is droll only to the mind of a savage or a child; while the queer gyrations of a person whose foot has gone to sleep, and who tries in vain to walk, may excite laughter in the civilised adult by affording the appearance of crooked limbs without the reality. This is perhaps what Kant meant by the resolution of the absolute. On the other hand, perhaps it is not.
When the development of humour reaches this stage its basis is shifted from the appearance of destructiveness and demolition to that of the incongruous. Man's advancing view of what is harmonious, purposeful and properly adjusted to its surroundings begins to cause him a sense of intellectual superiority, a tickling of amused vanity at the sight of that which misses its mark, which betrays a maladjustment of means to end, a departure from the proper type of things. The idea of contrast, incongruity, of the false semblance between the correct and the incorrect, becomes the basic principle of the ludicrous.
To this stage of the development of the ludicrous belongs the amusement one feels at the sight of a juggler swallowing yards of tape, or of a circus down wearing a little round hat the size of a pill-box.
Much of the humour of the farce and the pantomime, the transformation scene of the musical comedy, and the medley of the circus ring is of this class. Just why such appearances should excite laughter, why the sense of pleasure experienced should manifest itself in certain muscular movements, is a physiological, and not a psychological problem. Herbert Spencer tells us that the thing called a laugh is a sort of explosion of nervous energy, disappointed in its expected path, and therefore attacking the muscles of the face. Admirers of Spencer's scientific method may find in this plausible statement a pleasing finality, though why the explosion in question should attack the face rather than other parts of the body still seems a matter of doubt.
To this secondary stage of development is to be assigned the first appearance of the mode of humour called wit. Wit depends upon a contrast or incongruity effected by calling in the art of words. "It is," says Professor Bain, "a sudden and unexpected form of humour, involving a play upon words." "Wit," writes Walter Pater, "is that unreal and transitory form of mirth, which is like the crackling of thorns under a pot." "It consists," says another modern authority, Mr. Lilly, "in the discoveries of incongruities in the province of the understanding." If the view here presented be correct, wit is properly to be regarded not as something contrasted with the humorous but offering merely a special and, relatively speaking, unimportant subdivision of a general mode of intellectual operation: it presents a humorous idea by means of the happy juxtaposition of verbal forms.
Now this principle of intellectual pleasure excited by contrast or incongruity, once started on an upward path of development, loses more and more its anti-social character, until at length it appears no longer antagonistic to the social feelings, but contributory to them. The final stage of the development of humour is reached when amusement no longer arises from a single "funny" idea, meaningless contrast, or odd play upon words, but rests upon a prolonged and sustained conception of the incongruities of human life itself. The shortcomings of our existence, the sad contrast of our aims and our achievements, the little fretting aspiration of the day that fades into the nothingness of to-morrow, kindle in the mellowed mind a sense of gentle amusement from which all selfish exultation has been chastened by the realisation of our common lot of sorrow. On this higher plane humour and pathos mingle and become one. To the Creator perhaps in retrospect the little story of man's creation and his fall seems sadly droll.
It is of this final stage of the evolution of amusement that one of the keenest of modern analysts has written thus, -- "when men become too sympathetic to laugh at each other for individual defects or infirmities which once moved their mirth, it is surely not strange that sympathy should then begin to unite them, not in common lamentation for their common defects and inferiorities, but in common amusement at them." This is the sentiment that has inspired the great masterpieces of humorous literature -- this is the humour of Cervantes smiling sadly at the passing of the older chivalry, and of Hawthorne depicting the sombre melancholies of Puritanism against the background of the silent woods of New England. This is the really great humour -- unquotable in single phrases and paragraphs, but producing its effect in a long-drawn picture of human life, in which the universal element of human imperfection -- alike in all ages and places -- excites at once our laughter and our tears.
From this general settling of the subject let me turn to the more immediate consideration of American humour as such, and inquire what special sources of contrast and incongruity, what particular modes of thought and expression might well be engendered in American life, and reflected in American writing. Perhaps the most evident, and the most far-reaching, factor in the question is the circumstance that we Americans are a new people, divorced from the traditions, good and bad, of European life and are able thereby to take a highly objective view of European ideas and institutions. Our freedom from the hereditary and conventional view has enabled our writers to take an "outside" view of things, and to discover many contrasts and incongruities hidden from the European eye. We have been able to view the older civilisation from a distance, and to judge it on its merits. The objective view -- the deliberate insistence in judging things as they are, and not as hallowed tradition interprets them -- forms the essential "idea" of much of what is considered typically Yankee humour. It is one of the leading qualities in the humour of Franklin's Poor Richard, of Major Downing, of Sam Slick and of Hosea Biglow. It is connected essentially with the development of Yankee character, and of the Yankee view of the outside world. "A strange hybrid indeed," said an English writer half a, century ago, "did circumstance beget in the new world upon the old Puritan stock, and the earth never before saw such mystic practicalism, such niggard geniality, such calculating fanaticism, such cast-iron enthusiasm, such sour-faced humour, such close-fisted generosity."
This peculiar vein of Yankee character has nowhere been better exploited for purposes of humour than in James Russell Lowell's Biglow Papers. Here we have New England wisdom detached from the conventional view of things; how complete and surprising this detachment may sometimes appear is seen in the poem on the Mexican war, intended as a protest against the rampant militarism of the Southern expansionists, in which occurs the following verse:
We were getting on nicely up here to our village,
With good old idees o' wut's right and wut ain't,
We kind o' thought Christ went again' war an' pillage,
An' that eppylettes worn't the best mark of a saint.
But John P.
Sez this kind o' thing's an exploded idee.
A great deal of Mark Twain's humour rests upon a similar basis. The humorous contrast is found by turning the "artistic innocence" of the western eye to bear upon the civilisation of the old world. The result is amply seen in those two most amusing of American books, The Innocents Abroad and the New Pilgrims' Progress. A few words from a preface written by Mr. Hingston for an English edition of the "Innocents" admirably develop the fundamental basis of the contrast here utilised as a source of humour.
"From the windows of the newspaper office where Mark Twain worked (the office of the Territorial Enterprise, of Virginia City, Nevada) the American desert was visible: within a radius of ten miles Indians were encamped among the sage bush: the whole city was populated with miners, adventurers, traders, gamblers and that rough-and-tumble class which a mining town in a new territory collects together. He visited Europe and Asia without any of the preparations for travel which most travellers undertake. His object was to see things as they are and record the impressions they produced upon a man of humorous perception, who paid his first visit to Europe without a travelling tutor, a university education or a stock of conventional sentimentality packed in a carpet bag. He looked at objects as an untravelled American might be expected to look, and measured men and manners by the gauge he had set up for himself among the gold-bills of California and the silver mines of half-civilised Nevada."
It will be understood that a humorist enjoying the special advantage of so profound an ignorance was in a position to make amazing discoveries. I regret that the limited space at my disposal prevents an elaborate citation from Mark Twain's descriptions of Europe. But perhaps his reflections upon the old masters and their works in the picture galleries of Italy may serve as an illustration:
"The originals," he writes, "were handsome when they were new, but they are not new now. The colours are dim with age; the countenances are scaled and marred and nearly all expression is gone from them; the hair is a dead blur upon the wall. There is no life in the eyes. But humble as I am and unpretending in the matter of Art, my researches among the painted monks and martyrs have not been wholly in vain. I have striven hard to learn. I have had some success. I have mastered some things, possibly of trifling import in the eyes of the learned but to me they give pleasure and I take as much pride in my little acquirements as do others who have learned far more and who love to display them fully as well. When I see a monk going about with a lion and looking tranquilly up to heaven, I know that that is Saint Mark. When I see a monk with a book and a pen, looking tranquilly up to heaven and trying to think of a word, I know that that is Saint Matthew. When I see a monk sitting on a rock, looking tranquilly up to heaven with a human skull beside him and without any other baggage, I know that it is St. Jerome. When I see other monks looking tranquilly up to heaven but having no trademark, I always ask who these parties are. I do this because I humbly wish to learn. I have seen thirteen thousand St. Jeromes, twenty-two thousand St. Marks, sixteen thousand St. Matthews and sixty thousand St. Sebastians, together with four million of assorted monks undesignated, and I feel encouraged to believe that when I have seen some more of these various pictures and had a larger experience I shall begin to take a more absorbing interest in them."
As a subdivision of this Yankee humour which finds its starting point in the unprejudiced wisdom of the detached mind, is to be reckoned another mode of literary expression characteristic of the New England cast of thought. This is the production of a humorous effect by the affectation of a deep simplicity, a literary quality which perhaps had its root in the shrewdness in bargain-driving, highly cultivated among a people pious but pecuniary. No one was a greater master of this style than Artemus Ward. Ward was perhaps a comedian rather than a humorist. His early death prevented his leaving any great literary legacy to the world, but his lectures in New York and London of fifty years ago are still held in kindly recollection. It was his custom to appear upon the platform in what seemed a deep and embarrassed sadness; to apologise in a foolish and hesitating manner for the miserable little "panorama" lighted with wax candles which was supposed to offer the material of his lecture; to regret that the moon in the panorama was out of place; then in a shamefaced way to commence a rambling "Lecture upon Africa" in which, by a sort of inadvertence, nothing was said of Africa till the concluding sentence, when with a kind of idiotic enthusiasm which he knew so well how to simulate, he earnestly recommended his audience to buy maps of Africa, and study them. The following little speech made in explanation of his panorama may be taken as typical of his style:
"This picture," he used to say, "is a great work of art; it is an oil painting done in petroleum. It is by the Old Masters. It was the last thing they did before dying. They did this, and then they expired. I wish you were nearer to it so that you could see it better. I wish I could take it to your residences, and let you see it by daylight. Some of the greatest artists in London come here every morning before daylight with lanterns to look at it. They say they never saw anything like it before, and they hope they never shall again."
Somewhat similar in conception is the willful simplicity of his statement, -- "I was born in Massachusetts, but I think I must have been descended from an old Persian family, as my elder brother was called Cyrus." On one occasion he startled a London audience by beginning his lecture with the words, "Those of you who have been in Newgate," -- the audience broke into laughter; Ward looked at them in reproach and added -- "and have stayed there for any considerable time." Of a cognate character is the ultra-simple announcement which he printed at the foot of his lecture programme: "Mr. Artemus Ward must refuse to be responsible for any debts of his own contraction."
Among more modern writers Mr. Edgar Wilson Nye has fully availed himself of this truly American principle of the deliberate assumption of simplicity. The episode of his visit to the Navy Yard in the days before Mr. Roosevelt, when the American Navy was a proper target of national scorn, is a fine example of a humorously wilful misconception of the purpose of things:
"The condition of our navy," says Mr. Nye, "need not give rise to any serious apprehension. The yard in which it is placed at Brooklyn is enclosed by a high brick wall affording it ample protection. A man on board the Atlanta at anchor at Brooklyn is quite as safe as he would be at home. The guns on board the Atlanta are breech loaders; this is a great improvement on the old-style gun, because in former times in case of a naval combat, the man who went outside the ship to load the gun, while it was raining, frequently contracted pneumonia."
But let us return from the humour of simplicity to the main form of Yankee humour of which it is a part, the humour based on that freedom from traditional ideas and conventional views, characteristic of a new country. It will readily be perceived that, unless sustained and held in check by the presence at its side of an elevated national literature, this form of writing easily degenerates. Freedom from convention runs into crudity and coarseness; and a tone of cheap vulgarity is introduced calculated to discredit grievously the literature to which it belongs. It is unfortunate that even the work of the best American humorists is disfigured in this way. It would be offensive here to cite in detail such conspicuous examples as the account of the Turkish bath in the Pilgrims' Progress. An excellent example of what is meant is offered by Mark Twain's Cannibalism in the Cars. In this little sketch the vein of real humour may be obscured in the minds of many readers by the gruesomeness of the setting. I cite a part of it, not to excite laughter, but to illustrate the point under discussion. The story is that of a number of Congressmen, snowed in, in a railway train, and after a week of confinement, driven by hunger to the awful extremity of choosing one of their number to die that the rest may live. The fun of the piece is supposed to lie in the contrast offered by the awful circumstances of the event, and the formal legislative procedure which the Congressmen, trained in American politics, apply to the case from sheer force of habit.
"Gentlemen," said Mr. Richard H. Gaston, of Minnesota, "it can be delayed no longer. We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest."
Mr. John S. Williams, of Illinois, rose and said, "Gentlemen, I nominate the Reverend Jas. Sawyer, of Tennessee."
Mr. Wm. R. Adams, of Indiana, said, "I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote, of New York."
Mr. Slote: "Gentlemen, I decline in favour of Mr. John A. Van Nastrand, of New Jersey."
Mr. Van Nastrand: "Gentlemen, I am a stranger among you, I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy ----"
Mr. Morgan, of Alabama (interrupting): "I move the previous question." The motion was carried. A recess of half an hour was then taken, after which Mr. Roger, of Missouri, said:
"Mr. President, I, move to amend the motion by striking out the name of the Rev. Mr. Sawyer, and substituting that of Mr. Lucius Harris, of St. Louis, who is well and honourably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the higher character and standing of Mr. Sawyer. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here: but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any of us."
The Chairman: "What action will the house take upon the gentleman's motion?"
Mr. Halliday, of Virginia: "I move to amend the report by further substituting the name of Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon. It may be urged, gentlemen, that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough. But, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire, -- substance, weight, bulk, -- these are the supreme requisites now -- not latent genius or education."
The amendment was put to the vote and lost. Rev. Mr. Sawyer was declared elected. The announcement created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Harvey Davis, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot, but the preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Harvey Davis faction, and the happy announcement that Mr. Sawyer was ready presently drove all animosity to the winds.
We sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven days. I liked Sawyer. He might have been better done perhaps, but he was worthy of all praise. I wrote his wife so afterwards. Next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I sat down to -- handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently -- a perfect gentleman.
Enough, I think, has been quoted to illustrate my meaning and I spare my readers the references to "soup," to "juiciness" and to "flavour," in which the subsequent part of the article abounds.
Let us pass on to consider another broad division of American humour, the Humour of Exaggeration. It is not to be supposed that we Americans hold any monopoly of this mode of merriment. It is at least as old as Herodotus, whose efforts deserve all the credit attached to a praiseworthy beginning. Nay, even before Herodotus we find the humour of monstrous exaggeration fully exploited in the primitive literature of Norway. "The great giant of the Eddas," says one of the Sagas, "sits at the end of the world in Eagle's shape, and when he flaps his wings all the winds come that blow upon man." The suggested parallel to the American eagle is too obvious, and I pass it by. It is at least supposable that this element of exaggeration entered largely into all primitive folk song: it is likely that many passages in Homer, and the Ancients, which to the scholars of the day are mere mis-statements of ignorance were greeted in their time by the loud guffaws of barbarian listeners.
But though there is no monopoly of exaggeration in America, the circumstances of our country and its growth tend to foster it as a national characteristic. The amazing rapidity of American progress, and the very bigness of our continent, has bred in us a corresponding bigness of speech; the fresh air of the western country, and the joy of living in the open, has inspired us with a sheer exuberant love of lying that has set its mark upon our literature. Examples of the literary quality thereby inspired might be quoted in hundreds, but one or two must suffice. An old American newspaper of the year 1850 at once illustrates and satirises this mode of national thought thus:
"This is a glorious country. It has longer rivers and more of them, and they are muddier and deeper and run faster, and rise higher and make more noise and fall lower and do more damage than anybody else's rivers. It has more lakes and they are bigger and deeper and clearer and wetter than those of any other country. Our railway cars are bigger and run faster and pitch off the track oftener, and kill more people than all other railway cars in any other country. Our steamboats carry bigger loads, are longer and broader, burst their boilers oftener and send up their passengers higher, and the captains swear harder than the captains in any other country. Our men are bigger and longer and thicker; can fight harder and faster, drink more mean whiskey, chew more bad tobacco than in every other country."
A beautiful illustration of the same vein, not altogether unconscious, is found in Daniel Webster's speech to the citizens of Rochester:
"Men of Rochester, I am glad to see you. I am glad to see your noble city. Gentlemen, I saw your falls which I am told are one hundred and fifty feet high. This is a very interesting fact. Gentlemen, Rome had her Cæsar, her Scipio, her Brutus, but Rome in her proudest days had never a waterfall a hundred and fifty feet high. Gentlemen, Greece had her Pericles, her Demosthenes and her Socrates, but Greece in her palmiest days had never a waterfall a hundred and fifty feet high. Men of Rochester, go on."
It is notorious that this form of American fun has always proved somewhat difficult of comprehension to our British cousins. "I was prepared," said Artemus Ward in speaking of one of his English audiences, "for a good deal of gloom, but I did not expect to find them so completely depressed." It is interesting to note that the Right Hon. John Bright, one of the auditors of the lecture, said next morning: "The information is meagre and is presented in a desultory manner: indeed I cannot help questioning some of the statements."
This divergence of national taste is really fundamental in British and American art and literature, and it forms the line of division between the British and American conception of a joke. The Englishman loves what is literal. His conception of a "funny picture" is the drawing a trivial accident in a hunting field, depicting exactly everything as it happened, with the discomfited horseman dripping with water from having fallen into a stream; or covered with mud by being thrown into a bog. The American funny picture tries to convey the same ideas by exaggeration. It gives us negroes with, boots that are two feet long, collars six inches high and diamonds that shoot streaks of light across the paper. The English cartoonist makes a literal drawing. He may draw Mr. Winston Churchill as a chimney sweep or a nurse-girl or as a bull-terrier but the face is always the face of Mr. Winston Churchill. The American cartoonist on the contrary reduces Mr. Roosevelt to a set of teeth with spectacles, Sir Wilfred Laurier to a lock of hair, and the German Kaiser to a pair of moustaches. In either case the object sought may be attained or missed. British literalism in comic art or literature easily fades into insipid dullness; pointless stories of "awfully amusing things," told just as they happened, make one long for the sound of a literary lie. American exaggeration in comic art runs to seed in the wooden symbolism that depicts a skating accident by a series of concentric circles. American exaggeration in literature passes the bounds of commonsense, and becomes mere meaningless criminality.
At this point it may be in order to consider the question of especially American forms of wit. These are certainly not abundant. "We have not yet had time," said Josh Billings, "to boil down our humour, and get the wit out of it." There are nevertheless certain forms and modes of wit typically American. Most notable of these is what may be called restrained Simile, a form closely analogous to humorous exaggeration:
"This miserable man," writes a western editor in describing in terms of scorn the personal appearance of one of his rivals, "has a pair of legs that look like twenty-five minutes after six." "Rats are about as uncalled for," says Josh Billings, "as a pain in the small of the back." "There must be 60 or 70 million rats in the United States. Of course I am speaking only from memory."
Not unfrequently these forced comparisons become overforced and miss their mark. Witness the following:
"The effeminate man," says josh Billings, "is a weak poultiss. He is a cross between root beer and ginger-pop with the cork left out of the bottle overnight. He is a fresh water mermaid lost in a cow pasture with his hands filled with dandylions. He is a sick monkey with a blonde mustash. He is as harmless as a cent's worth of spruce gum and as useless as a shirt button without a button hole. He is as lazy as a bread pill, and has no more hope than a last year's grass-hopper!"
Another special form of American wit is found in the use of ellipsis, as if from ignorance or simplicity. A charming example of this is seen in a well known telegram sent by, or declared to have been sent by, Mark Twain: "Elephant broke loose from circus to-day. Rushed madly at two plumbers. It killed one. The other escaped. General regret." Closely similar is the mode of speech of which the following quotation from Eli Perkins is an example: "An old Maine woman undertook to eat a gallon of oysters for one hundred dollars. She gained fifteen, her funeral costing eighty-five."
The special forms of American wit offered by the various dialects constitute a chapter by themselves, but of these the most typical is offered by the negro misuse of words, a mode of wit fully exploited by the author of Uncle Remus and the Southern school:
"Julius, is yo' better dis morning?" "No, I was better yesterday, but I'se got ober dat." "Am dere no hopes of yo' discobery?" "Discobery of what?" "Discobery from the convalescence what am fetching you on yo'r back." "That depends, sah, altogether on the prognostication which implies the disease; should they continue fatally he hopes dis culled individual won't die dis time. But as I said afore, dat all depends on the prognotics: till dese come to a haid, dere am no telling whether dis pusson will come to a discontinuation or otherwise."
In any literature the forms of wit run easily to degeneration into sterile mechanical forms. There is an inevitable tendency to confound what is difficult with what is amusing. The sillier of the mediæval monks found amusement in anagrams, acrostics, and double-ended Latin lines which read as foolishly backwards as forwards. The sillier a amongst the English people take an infantile delight in puns. The corresponding curse of American humour is bad spelling. Bad spelling, as Lowell has said, is only amusing when it has some ulterior allusion or reference. Josh Billings' naif statement -- "I spell kaughphy, k-a-u-g-h-p-h-y, and Webster spells it coffee, but I don't know which of us is right" -- may be allowed to pass, but in the majority of cases bad spelling is utterly without point and contains no element of the comic. It is cheering to realise that the efforts of the spelling reform society will henceforth make bad spelling a serious matter.
It has been impossible in this short compass to say much of the part of American literature which moves upon the highest plane of humour, in which the mere incongruous "funniness" of the ludicrous is replaced by the larger view of life. In plain truth not much of what is called American humour is of this class. The writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the works of Mark Twain (not as cited in single passages or jokes, but considered in their broad aspect, and in their view of life), and, perhaps more than all, the work of 0. Henry, whose name will stand in retrospect among the greatest, present the universal element. But a large part of American humour lacks profundity, and wants that stimulating aid of the art of expression which can be found only amongst a literary people. The Americans produce humorous writing because of their intensely humorous perception of things, and in despite of the fact that they are not a literary people. The British people, essentially a people of exceptions, produce a high form of humorous literature because of their literary spirit, and in spite of the fact that their general standard of humorous perception is lower. In the one case humour forces literature. In the other literature forces humour.
One is tempted in such an essay as the present to conclude with a discussion of the writers of the immediate moment. But discretion forbids. Criticism is only of value where the lapse of a certain time lends perspective to the view. Of the brilliance and promise of a number of the younger humorists of to-day there can be no doubt. But it is difficult to appraise their work and to distinguish among a mass of transitory effects the elements of abiding value.